The Political Consequences of Loneliness and Isolation During the Pandemic

The loneliness of our self-isolation is compounded by anxiety and fear. It may be possible to be brave with others,
but in fear, as in illness, each of us is alone.

For many of us during the coronavirus pandemic, self-isolation describes the extent to which we can act to protect ourselves and others, solitude describes the best we can hope for, and loneliness describes what we actually feel. By “us,” I mean people who have the luxury of self-isolating, and the luxury of striving for solitude. Those who are not self-isolating—the doctors and nurses, the delivery workers who make the self-isolation of others possible—are, for most of their waking hours, often in a state of both isolation and loneliness, because they are deprived of the ability to choose their own company.

The most complicated and precise descriptions of isolation, solitude, and loneliness are offered by Hannah Arendt, in the last chapter of “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Loneliness, Arendt posits, is the defining condition of totalitarianism and the common ground of all terror. Isolation and solitude flank loneliness as two related but distinct conditions. Arendt’s examples—slaves and the subjects of modern totalitarian states—are both isolated and lonely, but not alone. Isolation, she writes, “may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result.” Isolation is the inability to act together with others, which, according to Arendt, is the source of a person’s political power. Isolation renders people impotent.

One can be lonely and not isolated, or isolated and not lonely. A person who is isolated cannot act with others, but still can act—still can create and send those creations out into the world. Loneliness is the inability to act altogether, either with others or alone. Arendt links loneliness to the states of uprootedness and superfluousness: having no place in the world, nothing to give to the world. This, in turn, is linked to the loss of what she calls “common sense”—the shared reality that allows us to know ourselves, to know where we end and the world begins, and how we are connected to others.

“We live without feeling the country beneath our feet // our words are inaudible from ten steps away,” the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote, in 1933, summing up the state of totalitarian loneliness, the loss of sense of time and place, the disappearance of society and of any hope of being heard or seen. When there is no connection to others, there can be no voice. Arendt writes about isolation and loneliness as the preconditions, instruments, and products of tyranny. We, in the virtual “here” today, are not the subjects of a tyrant or a totalitarian regime, and the terror we have experienced is not wielded by human hands, although it is exacerbated by them. Yet Arendt’s observations on isolation and loneliness have a piercing resonance today that they didn’t have eight or twelve weeks ago.

Every Sunday, I meet my best friends in Moscow on Zoom. The loss of sense of time and space means that a seven-hour time difference has little impact on our ability to drink simultaneously, and the distance between us—a distance that used to be measured in kilometres, hours, and dollars required to traverse it—has become an abstraction. My friends in Moscow are functionally as close and as far as my friend whose house is a short bike ride away. (Her house is, but she is an image on the screen.) More strikingly, it has been a long time since my friends in Moscow and I have inhabited a shared reality—have had as much of a “common sense”—as we do now. We experience similar isolation, fear, helplessness, and anger. We compare notes on schools that do not teach, hospitals that do not heal, and governments that betray us.

Our conversations revolve around absences. We talk about the ways in which we don’t see people. I have been staying in the same town as my father and my oldest friend, without seeing them. When I finally saw my father, after seven weeks, we wore masks and stood far apart, making the familiar details of our faces invisible. Our muffled voices were barely audible ten steps away. With my friend on Zoom, whom I see more clearly, as long as she stays in the frame, we talk about the not seeing, the many ways of not knowing: what the tests mean, if anything; when this pandemic will be over; what the world will be like when it is.

Gradually, though, the ground seems to be seeping out from under those conversations. Our common sense is wearing thin. Or perhaps it’s becoming too thick: what we experience during our weeks of isolation may be a matter of common sense in that we are experiencing similar things, but these things are internal, intimate, difficult to articulate—it’s difficult, too, to know whether they should be put into words. For the first few weeks, we traded news and impressions of our lives, updating one another on the speed and manner of the shutdowns in our respective cities. We traded notes on experiencing shock or nostalgia at the intrusion of a sound or a sight from life before the pandemic, such as hearing the voices of a few drunken men together out in the street. Then the world faded away.

What constitutes a new experience now?
A man I barely know tells me, during a professional conversation over Zoom, that he has not touched anyone in weeks and that his sexuality is atrophying. Another acquaintance, the art curator Ruth Noack, posts, on Facebook, “I just realized that I have not touched another living being, nor have I been touched, for more than 4 weeks. I wonder whether we will later on have split humanity into those who were touched and those who were not.” Those who are self-isolating in the company of others, meanwhile, have fights, doubts, highs and lows in their relationships, clashes about child rearing—all of the ways in which happy, unhappy, and fluctuating families, following a finite number of patterns under quarantine, create what common sense we have. We have always had these fights, fears, and heartaches in the intimate sphere, but they were generally shielded from the eyes of others. Now private lives are the only ones we are living.

What does this do to friendship, which always, in its many meanings, straddles the boundary between private and public?
Where is the boundary now, when all communal space is gone?
And what happens to the physical public spaces, while we leave them vacant? 

At the dawn of the era of self-isolation, in the initial burst of memes, songs, and other cultural productions, a Russian Web-based cartoon called “Masyanya,” which is now in its twentieth year of existence, posted an episode on the coronavirus. In it, the titular character, an eternally grumpy and sarcastic stick figure, self-quarantines for a year with her husband and two kids. They nail boards across their door, leaving only a thin horizontal slot for pizza deliveries, and Masyanya ponders the Russian word for “outside,” snaruzhi, which she converts to a noun: naruzha. It sounds repellant. “ ‘Naruzha’ is violence, illness, politics, filth, viruses, rudeness, crime, and other crap,” Masyanya announces, at the beginning of the family’s self-isolation. At the end, they peek out of their house. “What is that?” Masyanya asks. “The sky? That’s a piece of crap. Screw it, this naruzha—it’s nothing but trouble. I can show you the woods in V.R., and it will blow you away.” With that, she nails the door shut again.

One knows how she feels. The outside, the physical public space, is now full of treacherous negotiations and shifting rules of social interaction that leave you at the mercy of other people. The outside is the sound of sirens; it is the place you go if you become gravely ill. It is the site of battle and the source of the news. Things that exist in the public realm—the President, the F.D.A., the C.D.C., the governor, the mayor, the newspapers—have a greater and more immediate impact on our lives than at almost any other time save for a natural disaster, a war, or a revolution. And yet our separation from them is greater than at any other time: cut off by the hollowed-out public space, we become an anxious but passive audience.

And what happens to politics at a time like this? Less than a month ago, we saw Democratic-primary voters in Wisconsin risking their lives for the possibility of acting together with others—acting politically. Then we saw the Presidential campaign effectively go into a state of suspended animation. It is impossible to give anywhere near a complete accounting of all the political acts that are not happening: school boards that are not meeting, college-campus organizations that are not forming, protests that are (for the most part) not occurring, journalists who are not travelling to the scene, and, most important, connections that are not being forged. Of course, there are Zoom organizing meetings and protests that follow social-distancing guidelines. There are Webinars attracting record-breaking audiences for a talk by, say, Naomi Klein, and there are lawyers arguing crucially important cases from their apartments. But it matters that these events are not happening in shared public spaces. We have read by now about the myriad psychological reasons that Zoom is exhausting and frustrating: we can’t look one another in the eye, we can’t read facial expressions, we are intensely and fruitlessly aware of performing, and we cannot reconcile our words, intentions, and environment. There are other ways in which virtual communication falls short of becoming political. It is too easy to leave, to tune out, to give up. You are not in a room with people with whom you must reach agreement, and your exit involves no awkwardness, no physical barrier—it’s always a (not even audible) click away. And there is little serendipity. We connect technically without ever connecting by accident (unless, of course, the Zoom meeting is “bombed”). We make no new personal or mental connections of the sort that actually make us think. Our common sense is getting neither thin nor thick; it’s simply going stale.

Thinking, Arendt wrote, happens in solitude. “Loneliness is not solitude,” she wrote. “Solitude requires being alone whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.” My own internal distinction is simpler, and it will probably sound familiar to any writer. Loneliness, which I have experienced on several book leaves, makes me sad and stupid. Solitude—the opportunity to work alone while still being able to feed on human connection—makes me think. Arendt wrote that isolation is the enemy of solitude: when we cannot see our reflection in the eyes and ideas of others, the self disappears, and solitude turns into loneliness. “What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals,” Arendt writes. “In this situation, man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all.”

The loneliness of our self-isolation is compounded by anxiety and fear. These are lonely states. It may be possible to be brave with others, but in fear, as in illness, each of us is alone. Living in a constant state of dread, living under extreme constraint on the one hand and with extreme uncertainty on the other—these, too, are conditions of life in a totalitarian state (in which, I repeat, we do not live), and they make it almost impossible to think one’s way beyond immediate survival. We fight these obstacles, of course. My colleagues in the media have done an extraordinary job of assimilating and disseminating unfamiliar ways of conceptualizing reality, from facts about viruses, antibodies, and herd immunity that we all should have studied in middle school to more complicated and specialized ideas, such as the virus’s positivity rate or flattening the curve. This work allows us, the lay public, to grasp systemic approaches to understanding the pandemic.

So far, this virus has upset scientists’ assumptions in major ways. One was the possibility of asymptomatic spread, a phenomenon that seemed at once so unlikely and so frightening that scientific consensus might have lagged behind the evidence. We are also watching scientists adjust their assumptions about immunity. But I am not terribly worried about the medical and public-health scientists. Unlike most of us in this moment, they have both purpose and community: they have the world, which needs them and informs them. The scientists will be all right.

I am much more worried about lonely educators and lonely politicians, lonely writers and lonely economists, lonely architects and lonely filmmakers, lonely organizers and lonely artists, and all the other lonely people whose job it is to imagine the future. Arendt wrote that the only work that the mind can perform in a state of loneliness is “logical reasoning whose premise is the self-evident.” She meant the relentless, encapsulated logic of totalitarian thinking. Our common sense, such as it is, tells us that this intersection of social, political, economic, and public-health circumstances has never occurred before, and yet we are resorting to naked logic in our response. When we should be thinking about an interconnected world and shared resources, we hoard, individually and collectively, and reinforce the borders of the nation-state. 

When we should be thinking about the way we support one another’s lives and questioning the very assumption that there is a giant monolith called the economy that requires our commitment and our resources more than public health and individual well-being do, we are pouring unimaginable monetary and intellectual resources into trying to buy and sacrifice our way to the economic status quo ante. When it should be clearer than ever that we are only as well as our sickest member, we are allowing health care to continue to function as a business, with minimal intervention. Some of this, of course, is happening because our federal government has been captured by a deranged malignant narcissist and his enablers, but that is not the only reason. All of us are lonely right now—and, to some extent, at least, sad and stupid.

The idea that we must change the world to survive this crisis and thrive in its aftermath is itself practically self-evident. In a stunning essay published last month, Arundhati Roy called the pandemic a “portal”: “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” Naomi Klein has observed that ideas which seemed radical in the week before the pandemic hit the United States became commonsensical the week after; these include universal health care, universal housing, debt-free education, and the Green New Deal. But these ideas, too, cannot be suddenly picked up and slapped on—they have to be not only reasoned through but thought. And it terrifies me that, when thought is so necessary, there is so much loneliness, and solitude is so hard to come by.

This piece is adapted from a lecture delivered (via Zoom) at the New School on April 30, 2020, in honor of William Phillips.

Masha Gessen